A Short Life Well Lived

Why would God allow a 15-year-old boy to die?  

This was the question in our mind when Ronell, my grandnephew, died of Leukemia after only a month from diagnosis of the dreaded disease. 

A whole family, a whole clan, a whole country, a whole world prayed, “Lord, please  heal Ronell.”

The news of Ronell's sickness went viral after it was announced by an uncle on Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail. The message called for help—prayers, blood, and funds, in that order.  And people from all walks of life rushed to the hospital, financial help poured, netizens from many countries twitted and sent messages of comfort and concern.

Despite the worldwide chorus of prayers, God chose not to heal Ronell.  He took him instead.   


At his wake, I hugged and asked Ronell's older brother, “Are you okay?”

“No, I am not okay,” he murmured.

It will take sometime before he and we will be okay.  But his mom and dad put on a brave face as they thanked the hordes of people that packed the chapel, many of whom volunteered to speak during the necrological service: 

“Ronell made me realize how important God is in our lives. He brought his Bible to school to tell me about the Savior.”

“I was never close to my parents, but from Ronell I learned the importance of family—and God.” 

“He became a surrogate brother to my only son, who is so finicky about the people he goes with.”

“Always thoughtful, always gracious, always generous with his time in helping me and others.”

“He made me laugh, made me feel that everything was okay with the world because of God.” 

“He never whined, not even when in pain.”

From the Pastor, who delivered the Memorial Service sermon, “Ronell, weak and drained in the hospital ICU, asked me if God really forgives sinners.  When I said yes, his mouth twitched into a smile, despite his pain.  That was a most beautiful moment.”

From an uncle, “I used to be reluctant in sharing God's word with friends.  But after knowing what Ronell had been doing, young as he was, I am now emboldened to speak about salvation with anyone—even strangers.”

During his brief journey on earth, grace shone through Ronell and changed many lives—of friends, family, and strangers.

Someone said, “God spared Ronell from the landmines of evil forces on earth.”      

It's all too clear—our heavenly Father plucked Ronell from his mortal coil to the peaceful place where He lives, because the boy we loved belongs there. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Not in the future.


Second stanza of the gospel song, The Greatness of Our God (Hillsong)


Death of Latte . . . and Gadhafi

Our own rodent, Latte—one of JC's two guinea pigs—died about the same time Gadhafi did. 

Brown like coffee with milk, and just as delightful, Latte suddenly refused her staple grass and after a couple of hours, she stopped breathing. 

JC put her in a box and our househelper dug her grave, again—like all our other pets—beside all the flowers in our garden.  Today we (I say, we, because although they're technically JC's, we love them just as much) only have one rodent, Earl Gray, who, we wish, will stay healthy. 

I am drawn to the stark contrast of people's emotions between an insignificant rodent and an infamous strongman.   

Gadhafi was a feared leader who died like a rat in a sewer.  Latte was a precious  rodent who died like a treasure in a home.   

In a family of writing enthusiasts (husband, wife and sons), it isn't unusual to find pieces on God's grace written about something or other lying around. This time, JC wrote one about Latte.  Sharing it with you . . .

You always were the brave one. Even before I bought you, there you were in that small cramped cage with your brothers, looking at me in the eye. Dehydrated and weak, your tiny feet sore from walking on that wire floor meant for birds, you reached out while I took a video of you.

You annoyed me to no end, blocking me every step of the way, every time I spot-cleaned your cage. Bigger isn’t always braver. You always swiped food from your much larger brother’s mouth every meal time. You never failed to push him aside each time he was at the water bottle.

You figuratively and literally stood tall for both of you, wheeking for food or attention. Truly, you were always more vocal, unafraid to speak your mind. EG has recently taken up the cudgels for you, but it’s just not the same.

Loud and brave, that was you. The one thing you were deathly afraid of was being picked up. You’ve always been skittish and uncooperative every time I tried to do that, but during your last week, you finally let me pet you without running away. Tough on the outside, there was a side of you that others hardly saw. You loved chin-rubs, and always looked like you were in a trance while I did that, thoroughly enjoying yourself.

It was a relatively busy and stressful week for me, and God gave you a little more strength to not show what you were really feeling, till the last moments, since that would have stressed me out. Even then, you bravely showed your trademark spunk, defiantly boxing the air and wheeking as you lay there.

Somehow, I knew you didn’t have long when I finally managed to carry you from your cage unaided, without so much a fight.

I thank the Lord for lending you for a little over a month. It reminded me that if a small, frail creature like you meant a lot to a sinful, finite being like me, how much more I, created in God’s own image, mean so much more to Him?

Goodbye Latte. We’ll miss you. 

Latte (left) and Earl Gray


Gadhafi Did Not Die Like a Dog

"He died like a dog,” many newspapers wrote on how the former strongman—one of the most vilified leaders in recent history—died.

I say he didn't die like a dog; our dogs die better.

About half a dozen of our dogs over the years were buried deep in our garden under tall trees and beside flowering hedges. Our Vet put them to sleep, and we stayed silent as we awaited their last breath.  Then we thanked God for their lives and for the joy they brought us.

This has been the ritual of dying for our—and I guess most pet lovers'—dogs.  We do not parade them around town, bloodied, half naked, gasping for air, while we gloat and shout a slew of curses.  

Gadhafi didn't die like a sewer rodent, either.  Rodents die better. (JC wrote a beautiful piece on  this, which I am tempted to include here—on second thought, it deserves a solo post next time.) 

Did Gadhafi deserve the way he died? After all, he did the same thing, or worse, to many of his own people.

Well, did my 15-year-old grandnephew, Ronell, deserve the way he died?  He suffered extreme pain, strapped to a dozen tubes, endured numerous blood transfusions, and was sapped with energy every day till the last fateful hour.

Did our loved ones—like my dad who fought an agonizing battle against cancer for four years—deserve the way they died?

Did those criminals, burned in electric chair, or those accused with treason, beheaded in public view, deserve the way they died?

Did those 19 young soldiers, killed by MILF in a fierce battle, deserve the way they died? 

And to go on, did Marcos, who lived with debilitating Lupus for years, deserve the way he died? Or did Ninoy, whose life was snuffed out as soon as he set foot on his homeland, deserve they way he died? 

Then the ultimate death that changed our world and all our lives, did Jesus deserve the way He died?

Except for the death of Jesus, which is so clear in the Scriptures why sinners killed Him in that manner, we can only speculate on ordinary mortals' way of dying.

Gadhafi's was just one in billions of earthly passing that had, has, and will come to every man. 

We will not know the whys and the wherefores of death, but when we entrust our life to the sovereign God, believe in His power over every powerful dictator and powerless citizen the world over, He gives us grace to accept why death happens the way it does.


Solo Flight Launched

“This is the most difficult book I have ever had to write,” I said in my short remarks at the launch of Solo Flight.

And the reason is, it was no solo flight for me, as it usually is when I write, till the manuscript reaches the editor(s).     

For Solo Flight, I had a co-author. 

It seemed like an accident at first, but reflecting on the events where Solo Flight began, I believe an unseen Hand led us all to it. 

Teacher Francie, a nodding acquaintance for years, had a wonderful story to tell. In one of our chance encounters, she began to tell me this story, which left me unblinking.  Unfortunately, the narration was cut short by the activity we were both attending. A brief  thought came to me then—it would make an interesting book. 

What do you know, Yna, OMFLit's Director for Publications, emailed a few months later, asking me if I wanted to partner with Teacher Francie in writing her love story. I jumped at the chance—to hear the ending of it—and as the say, the rest is history. 

How does one deal with joint authorship? Deb Bataller of CBN Asia said it best, “Teacher Francie is the storyteller and Grace is the story writer.”

Writing someone's story from her point of view is deceptively easy.  But the writer has to enter that someone's innermost thoughts—and fears.  That's where the difficulty lies—having disparate feelings and opinions about issues.  Teacher Francie was single for almost as long as I have been married! 

Grace came to the rescue—it turned on the sunshine, so that both ends would see where to walk together towards the same destination.   

As the writing went along, grace also brought in new dimensions and texture to give the story depth and relevance to singles. It branched out to other related stories. Then Yna and our editor, Beng (both singles), threw in fresh insights that enriched the writing even more.  

On September 15, 2011, Solo Flight (again, not solo, but in tandem with a book of Teacher Francie's husband) was launched. 

The book launching was a story in itself.  In one roof were as many singles as couples. Prepared by my co-author's staff, the ceremony was flawless (read: no dead air) and the mood, worshipful, turning festive at the reception!

This time, I will let the pictures tell the book launching story. But let me end this post by saying, grace makes everything possible—even the meeting of two most unlikely friends.

The Angklung ensemble of  The Learning Tree delighted us all
Family from as far as American Samoa, Australia, US and Baguio


Angry Birds

The first time I heard these two words was about a week before Adrian arrived from the US.  My friend G and I were shopping and she yelped when she found the perfect pair of ear phones for a little nephew.  She uttered three unfamiliar syllables I couldn't catch. 

“Antsy Birds?”  I asked.

“Angry Birds!” she replied.

“Hardy words?” I asked again.

“Angry birds!” she replied, louder this time. 

“Wordy curds?”  I was really trying mighty hard to understand.

“A-N-G-R-Y, B-I-R-D-S!”  she spelled them out, loud and clear. And she went on to explain what they were.

Not a fan of computer games, I had zero knowledge of these cyber creatures' existence.

Then Adrian, a cannonball at four, landed on our shores. He was to be left with Tony and me for four days while his parents took off somewhere.

On his first day alone with us, we brought him to a toy store.  “What would you like Amah (Chinese word of respect for grandma) and Angkong (grandpa) to buy you, Adrian?”

“Angry birds!” he said excitedly

“Antsy birds?” “Hardy words?” “Wordy curds?” These series of questions came not from me but from his Angkong. 

I patiently explained to the clueless senior what they were. To say he was shocked would be accurate. Not at Angry Birds, but at  how well I knew what was supposed to be Greek to our generation. 

It was a cinch from hereon.  Wherever we went—to the playground, the restaurant, the mall, the video arcade, the flea market, Rizal's hometown, a provincial farm, a resort—my technologically challenged roommate and I could spot Angry Birds miles away. 

Angry Birds mimicked grace—they were to our left, to our right, above us, below us, all around us. Countless. Endless.

We had not realized till then that these characters inhabit every single place and space these days—handbags, backpacks, umbrellas, hats, pencil cases, t-shirts, toys, ear plugs, posters, decals, you name it, Angry Birds are on it.

By the time Adrian's mom and dad were packing their luggage back to the US, they had to allocate one suitcase for Angry Birds—from both sets of grandparents.

Here's the thing. Adrian planed in as Captain America (and Green lantern, and Spider Man, and Iron man, and Captain Marvel, and everyone in the League of Super heroes), but flew out in less than three weeks as Angry Birds.


Lord, thank you for the grace of a grandson who keeps us in the loop. Amen.


Palanca Awards 2011

This year's September 1 is a season of smiles, I thought, noticing for the first time that everyone I met inside the ballroom of Manila Peninsula Hotel had a grin glued on his face.

Well, the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards Night is a happy occasion. The winners are given their certificates/medals on stage.

Now on its 61st year, the Palanca Awards remains, as written on its website, “The country's most prestigious and longest-running literary contest.”

Receiving your certificate/medal takes no more than two minutes.  But it makes you feel like you're floating on air far more than that.

I glimpsed some of the biggest smiles that night on stage where I stayed for two minutes—times six. As chair of the jury for the Kabataan Essay category in both Filipino and English, I was privileged to hand out the first, second, and third awards in both divisions.
My friend, Dr. Luis Gatmaitan, a Hall of Fame Palanca awardee and who had been invited to judge a number of times, whispered as I hurried up the stage, It's more exciting to go up there as a winner than as a judge.
I couldn't agree more. When I went up the stage for my awards on several Sept. 1's, I nearly tripped and my lips twitched here and there. But now having the reverse view on ringside seat, I saw how those near-trips and twitches really looked like—a glow that rivaled the spotlights. 

But a judge had her share of excitement, too—of an unusual kind.

I felt humbled to be a part of a judging panel whose job was to separate the great from the excellent: a herculean task.  After reading the entries over and over again, reveling in full adrenaline rush, you begin to doubt whether you are up to the task or are being fair.

Judging is personal taste. Put three judges together and there will be three points of view. 

This is when one needs the grace of discernment.  Human blinders make you lose your way.

After writing down my choices' strengths and weakness, I brought my notes to the judging table. Two other judges and I, after a lengthy discussion, agreed on the first, second and third prizes in both English and Filipino divisions.   

I was blessed with two gentlemen peers who were as objective as objective can be. There were no names on the entries, just numbers, and the judges' identity were kept confidential. Every name was revealed only on September 1. 

All below 18, the winners brimmed with optimism and idealism. (To read their winning pieces, please click.)

A bonus for me that night, aside from meeting the literary greats whose works I drool over and a huge souvenir medal, was talking for the first time to one of my revered Filipino authors, F. Sionil Jose, the guest speaker.

But just when I wanted to have a photo with him, my camera batteries conked out. Luis came to the rescue (95% of the photos on these page were taken by him).

“I pass through your town, Rosales, on my way to my own, sir, ” I babbled as an opener. “One time we drove around looking for the balete tree in your Rosales Saga.” 

He laughed and rattled off in Ilocano, “Awan didiay! [That tree is non-existent!]” A fact I had already known from write-ups of him, yet it made for good conversation with a National Artist whose literary achievements stun.

So I got my pictures, which I am sharing with you.

Looking at them, I think I imbibed the winners' smiles—especially because when Tony and I left the hotel that night, this verse illumined my mind anew:

“. . . as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory.” 2 Corinthians 4:15 (NLT)


Steve Jobs and Manong Arsenio

While the world is grieving the passing of Steve Jobs, I am privately mourning the death of someone nobody knew but his family and friends.

I called him Manong (Ilocano honorific for an older male) Arsenio—he who married my childhood friend and worked with his hands all his life on an insignificant farm, hidden in the middle of nowhere.

Steve never heard of Arsenio, neither did Manong Arsenio ever hear of Steve.

(Left) Steve Jobs with one of his babies on stage; (left) Manong Arsenio with his wife at his home
The cyber community is abuzz with beautiful words—tribute after tribute—for Steve. No techie worth his pixels can ever say enough about this modern icon, dead at 56.

No words will ever be written about Manong Arsenio, 71. His friends and family can't write prose nor poetry.

Steve was the reason millions of people joined the computer industry, or even care about technology at all. Yes, he made the computer personal, and the smartphone fun.

Mankind always awaited with bated breath another revolutionary product from Steve—the iMac, OS X, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad.  These products have made their homes in many work rooms, family rooms and bedrooms.

Manong Arsenio didn't own a computer, simply because he had no need for one. To communicate with someone, he walked the distance. On Sundays, he donned his best for the worship service, where he awaited with bated breath the next lesson about Jesus from the pastor and his Sunday School teacher. On weekdays, he helped with odd jobs in church.  

While Steve walked on the spotlit stage with his iMac in a brown envelope, Manong Arsenio toiled under the heat of the sun with a spade, mixing cement for his church's walkway.  

While Steve addressed raucous crowds to launch the latest invention of his extraordinary brain, Manong Arsenio rallied a small group of timid elders and deacons to make do with available funds to re-build the church ravaged by Typhoon Ondoy.

When Steve was diagnosed with cancer, he got the best medical care from the best physicians in the best hospitals; Manong Arsenio opted not to undergo further treatment because he couldn't afford the expensive dialysis and medicines.

Many of Steve's fans are cursing—in unprintable words—the disease that killed him. All of Manong Arsenio's family and friends, although in grief, are praising God for the blessed life he lived.

This is a world of contrasts.

Without meaning to cast judgment on the two men, who both touched my life, I think the difference lies not in their status in society—how much money they amassed, how much education they earned, or how many people lionized them.

It's in how they acknowledged the Source of what they were and what they had.

From what I read, Steve Jobs (or the people who admired him anyway) believed he had it all in him—a creative genius.

From what I know, Manong Arsenio (or the people in his circle anyway) believed that everything is by grace. And he was exceedingly grateful to the Source of this wondrous grace all his life, till his very last breath.

Goodbye, Steve;  till we meet again, Manong Arsenio.


Simple Folks

JB called from the US a week before his and his family's short three-week trip to the Philippines.

"Mom, what would you want me to buy you from here?"

He gave me the perfect opening to ask for the moon.

Without missing a beat, I said, "Philip Yancey's latest book, What Good is God?" (I have all of this author's books, each one of them signed by Yancey himself.)

Pause.  "That's it?!" he asked, surprised.

"That's it," I replied.

"But you could easily download that to your Nook [his gift last Christmas]!" 

"It would be nice to have this book in print."

Resigned sigh. "Anything else?" he pressed.

"Nothing else."

A more audible resigned sigh, “Ok.”  

Days earlier, he chatted with JC, asking him what their father might want.

JC typed, “Prince Valiant comic book.”  

JB:  Huh?! How about an iPad 2?

JC: No, Prince Valiant.  He's been nagging me to order for him the Vol. 3 collection from Amazon.”  

JB: How about a high-tech razor?

JC: Prince Valiant.

Tony and I—we're simple folks.  When generous cousins from abroad ask for what we want when they visit, we say, "Splenda."

"Splenda?! That thing available in any supermarket?!"

"Yeah, but we want the freebies on the plane."


Over the years, and more than ever now that we are headed toward the sunset, the Lord has helped us pare down our expensive wants so we can enjoy the free things He has given us—the sky and all that's in it; the earth and all that's in it; the air and all that's in it; ample breaks to use the talents sent our way, and doing what we love doing; relationships, friends, family; the time to praise, worship, and thank Him for every blessing—most especially His greatest gift of all:

The grace of redemption.